Aging like a fine wine: Dorothy Wagner shows off a picture of herself when she graduated from nursing school in 1927. Wagner, who turned 101 earlier this month, has never suffered from a major illness. She attributes her long life to hard work. Photo/Jared
It was one of the best days of his life.
Howard Wagner, a plumber struggling to survive during the Great Depression, finally made some money at the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago.
"I sold $1.20 worth of marble at the market," Howard Wagner wrote to his wife on the back of a booth ticket. It was 1931.
His wife, Dorothy Wagner, still has the ticket, tucked away behind a picture frame inside her Horseshoe Bend home.
Her husband has been dead for over 20 years, but the writing on the ticket still brings tears to Wagner's eyes.
"We didn't have very much back in those days," said Wagner, who turned 101 earlier this month. "He was so happy when he sold that marble."
Despite her age, Wagner lives alone in her Horseshoe Bend home, a house that she designed in 1969.
Her present husband, Waldo Brafford, lives in the nursing home in Horseshoe Bend. The two were married three years ago.
"He's a pup," Wagner said of Brafford, who is 91.
Brafford is Wagner's fourth husband.
She said she cooks, cleans, works in her garden and still drives her 1988 Cadillac into town to visit friends and pick up groceries.
In the middle of her house she has a spiral staircase that she walks up and down every day.
"Having a strong work ethic is why I've lived so long," Wagner said. "That's what's wrong with people these days, they don't want to work."
Wagner said she is careful about what she eats and incorporates flax seeds into as many meals as she can.
Dorothy Stinson (Wagner) was born Sept. 2, 1904, in Centralia, Ill.
One of her earliest memories is of her sister who died when she was less than a year old.
"I always wanted a baby sister and I finally got one," Wagner said. "I carried her around on a pillow. She went everywhere with me. I loved her."
Wagner said she isn't sure what killed her sister, but that it was a form of diarrhea.
Not long after her sister died, Wagner said, she and the rest of the world received shocking news from the icy waters of the north Atlantic.
"When the Titanic sank it was in all the papers and everybody talked about it," Wagner recalled.
Wagner's social life revolved around the church in her early teen-age years.
"After church or an ice cream social, all the boys would wait outside and pick a girl to ask to walk home with when we came out," Wagner said with a sheepish grin on her face. "I got picked a few times."
Dates in those days consisted of a horse drawn carriage ride to an afternoon movie starring Charlie Chaplin, Mable Norman and others, she said.
During the 1920s Wagner attended nursing school where she met Howard Wagner.
Wagner said Howard Wagner's sister set them up on a date and they took an instant liking to each other.
"Those were wonderful days. We'd go on picnics and eat spaghetti and drink a glass of wine," Wagner said. "Sometimes we would hold hands and walk through a snow covered cemetery near his sister's house."
Wagner and Howard spent many afternoons dancing to songs such as "The Big Apple" and "The Black Bottom."
The couple's first child, Kenneth Wagner, was born in 1930 just as the Great Depression began.
Wagner said the 1930s were a difficult time for her family. Although she was a trained nurse, Wagner worked as a beautician to make money.
"In those days you could get your hair done for a quarter," Wagner said. "That was a lot of money."
During World War II Wagner served as a nurse throughout the Midwest and her husband served as a plumber on a Navy ship.
When he returned from the war in 1946, the couple had their second and last child, Ted Wagner.
"I was 43 and wanted a little girl," Wagner said. "But after we had Ted we decided to quit."
Wagner has traveled all over the world during her life. She has walked up the stairs in the Tower of Pisa in Italy, she has visited the British Isles and Greek islands in the Mediterranean, and she has traveled from the northern reaches of Alaska to the Statue of Liberty in New York.
The most exotic place Wagner has visited is the Giza Plateau in Egypt.
"We saw the Sphinx and went inside the pyramids," Wagner said. "It was an unbelievable experience."
When they were in Horseshoe Bend the Wagners hosted bridge parties, avidly attended church and spent long afternoons on the golf course.
"Those were wonderful days and I miss them greatly," Wagner said.
Longevity has come with a steep price, Wagner said. She said it has been hard watching her friends and family all die throughout the years.
After Howard died, she married Gordon Bush, a friend of the Wagners whose wife had also passed away.
Wagner and Bush were married for 10 years before he died.
"Gordon knew how to live. He was lots of fun," Wagner said.
Her third marriage was short lived, Wagner said. Her third husband, who she refused to name, treated her bad, she said.
They divorced after only seven months.
One death that was particularly painful was that of her youngest brother, Herschel Stinson.
"On the day he was born I heard the first squeak that came out of him," said Wagner, who was 12 when her brother was born. "He would do anything you asked him to do. He was a wonderful person."
Herschel Stinson died on Wagner's birthday three years ago. A picture of Wagner and her brother still sits on a table in her living room.
Wagner said she has gotten used to people she cares about passing away. She said it always bothered her to think about her mother dying, but when it happened it was a liberating experience.
"After that I didn't fear death as much," Wagner said. "It's something that's going to happen to all of us.
And then she paused for a moment.
"Maybe not me," she said with a smile across her face.